Recent strides in motor learning theory have led to a lot of questions being answered, and even more being asked. But one of the more startling discoveries could really shake up the way you view learning, and lead to a paradigm shift in how people conduct and think about practice in general.
It tends to be that most people practice to ingrain a movement. The typical theory has been that you should practice in a way which brings you toward perfection; usually manifesting itself in picking a model swing and trying to copy that, or elements of it. While this can serve a purposeful function, it may be holding you back more than you think, and you could be missing out on a big chunk of learning.
Think about how most of the PGA Tour pros of the pre-video analysis/trackman/K-vest era built their swings. They often worked out the best method for themselves through trial and error, experimenting with different ideas until they found what worked. Not only did this experimentation give rise to brilliantly functional swings which all looked similar in macro-technique (the overall look of a swing), but it also encouraged individual variations. For example — Ben Hogan and Sam Snead both shifted their weight forward in the downswing and exhibited quality swing plane, yet their techniques were not identical.
There are certain elements of every golfer’s swing which are fundamental, the variations arise because of the fact we that are not all built the same. We vary in so many minute areas, and each of these little things can influence our technique. Flexibility profiles, strength profiles, power-production sources, limb lengths, joints, tendon attachments and even things such as eye dominance can influence our technique. So how on earth can we find out truly what is right for us?
Luckily, we have an ability to arrange all these pieces into a way which is both functional and fits our specific body. This ability is not only present in human beings, but across almost every living organism. Parts of the brain are able to sense what we cannot yet measure and will organize all of the components together in a synergistic fashion. So why haven’t we done it yet? Why is our golf swing still suffering the same faults year after year?
It is this idea of experimentation which I want to pay close attention to, and so should you. Einstein once said that the definition of insanity was to try the same thing over and over and expect a different result. Yet that is pretty much what many golfers do. What I want to encourage is more experimentation in your practice — try things you have never tried before.
What happens when we do this? At first, we may get a little worse, as we are trying out new moves, new positions and new feelings. But then the human body does something amazing; it takes all the new information and starts to selectively pick the most appropriate strategies/moves. In scientific terms, we call this self-organizing, and all of this will happen without your conscious awareness. Your skill sets literally grow as you’re practicing things you actually don’t want to happen.
As an example of this: Instead of standing on the range and beating balls to the same target over and over, trying to calibrate a straight shot — why not try to hit the biggest hook you can hit (by really closing the club face more left of the swing path) followed by the biggest slice you can hit (by opening the face to the right of the swing path). Although this is completely what you would not want to ingrain into your swing, learning is much more dynamic than that. From practicing the two extreme variants of shot shape, your brain is learning different methods to control direction, so it can create straighter shots through this information.
In the scientific circles, this is called differential practice, and has been shown to dramatically improve motor skills and even technique (even though you were not practicing good technique). So what are some more ways which we can implement this type of training?
- Hit high shots and low shots.
- Tee the ball at different heights than normal -– even use a driver tee for an iron.
- Hit balls off the ground with your driver (or try).
- Why not try a few shots from your knees?
- Try a ‘Happy Gilmore’ swing or two -– it’s fun.
- Grip cross-handed (left below right from a righty). Maybe try inventing your own grip.
- Try a flop shot with a 4- or 5-iron.
- Try and shank the shot. You heard right! Hit a hosel rocket intentionally, followed by an extreme toe shot.
Don’t be frightened to invent your own. Be creative, that is part of the fun of these sessions. I personally learned to get to scratch in just over three years, and a big portion of my time was spent hitting trick shots and creating humorous ways to hit a ball. I would recommend picking one day to go to the range and hit a bucket of balls trying out different variations. The aim is not to hit good shots, it is to learn, explore and practice variation, so that your brain becomes a supercharged hub of information which it has more chance of drawing out the correct information when required.
Adam Young is a PGA professional and works for the Leadbetter Academies. He spends his summers teaching new golfers and mid-handicap players to play better.